Monday, June 21, 2010

Effect and cause: Hollywood edition

From New York Magazine:
How Toy Story 3 Scored: Even though the kiddies all clap their palms raw whenever that silly cyclops of a desk lamp hops out to squash the "I" in "Pixar," Disney still faced a conundrum: Those tykes who were in first grade when Toy Story first hit theaters in 1995 are now seniors in college.

However, instead of writing off the twentysomethings as too jaded to come, the studio targeted them, knowing that the Woody/Buzz bond was ageless. "Pixar went out of their way to ground the movie in the idea that the character [Andy who] you knew as a kid was now off to college," explained David Sameth, Disney's senior VP of marketing, "It’s only natural to pick up the same idea in marketing, and translate it into our terms." That meant courting the keg-stand-performing college kids directly: In the run-up to TS3's release, Disney sponsored a special "college cliff-hanger campaign," screening two-thirds of the finished film for undergrads at some 80 colleges nationwide, which kicked off the positive buzz from the Twitter set. The studio also crafted a viral YouTube campaign — fake period ads for one of the movie's new additions, Lots-o-Huggin' Bear — that is still being discovered.

Helped by a 100% favorable rating on, not only did those former grade schoolers come running back to make this Pixar's top-grossing opener ever (helped by 3D pricing), but so did everyone else: Its audience was 46% over the age of 25, and roughly equally distributed between males and females. Who went? With 4,000 plus theaters showing it, "Everybody," said Chuck Viane, Disney's distribution chief. But what about "franchise fatigue" and all that? Says Disney's Sameth, "People don't go to see franchises; they go to see movies. This is a great one."

I'll buy that last part. I haven't seen the film yet but based on the reviews, the talent and most importantly, the standard of work from Pixar, I will be surprised to see anything less than excellence.

I would also have been surprised to see the picture fail to bring in dump trucks of money. This kind of long-awaited sequel tends to do well (think of how many people went to see Harrison Ford hobble around in Crystal Skull or George Lucas burn off what remained of his legacy in Phantom Menace). Pixar films also tend to bring in big money (Up grossed nearly three quarters of a billion worldwide). Add to that the fact that after three films built around gifted but non-bankable character actors (Oswald, Asner, Plummer) and uncomfortable themes (rats preparing food; the destruction of the environment; old age, loneliness, and even miscarriage), Pixar played this one safe with a big star in the lead and familiar thematic territory. It is probably the least adventurous film from the studio since, well, Toy Story 2.

Given all this and the significant traditional media marketing, there is no evidence here that targeting college students brought in anyone who wouldn't have seen the film anyway. This type of alternative, targeted marketing can be highly effective for movies and other products you might not have otherwise heard of (Kick-Ass, Defendor, OSS 117 would all be reasonable choices). The techniques are much less effective for well-publicized films and they aren't scalable; a good twitter/viral video campaign can push a small film into wider release which can take you from a gross of five million to ten or twenty million, but when you're talking about opening in thousands of theatres and having to gross two hundred million just to break even, this kind of non-traditional marketing is usually a waste of time.

But the entertainment industry loves to tell itself these stories: marketing to twenty-somethings helped make Toy Story 3 a hit; the Hangover shows that people want gross out gags and Apatow-style humor; Electra, Catwoman and Charlie's Angels II all bombed because they were female superhero movies with dark themes. None of these stories stand up to any scrutiny. All can be replaced by more credible explanations (usually starting with the quality of the script). But the industry still embraces these unbelievable accounts because of what they say about replication and risk.

William Goldman famously observed that when it comes to how well a movie is going to do "Nobody knows anything." That's not quite true. There is an optimal strategy: start with a strong script; keep people (particularly studio executives) away from it as much as possible; hire a competent director and a cast of good actors who fit their roles; provide an adequate marketing campaign that gives the potential audience an accurate impression of the film.

As straightforward as this may seem, this strategy gives little comfort to people in the industry for two reasons.

First, this is difficult to replicate on a large scale. There are writers who can turn out strong scripts (Goldman being the most obvious example) but they are hard to find and can take a long time to cultivate. To put together a team comparable to what Pixar has is a monumental task.

Second (and this is where Goldman's observation really kicks in), there is a great deal of unpredictability in the system. Sometimes film-makers will do everything right and the film will just fail to gel artistically. Other times a film will come out perfect but for some reason won't get the reception it deserves.

This need to find a comforting explanation for success and failure is not limited to Hollywood. Many if not most companies spend a great deal of time retroactively assigning causes to major successes and failures. There is usually little empirical evidence at work and quite a bit of politics and score settling, but even the most dubious of explanations have a way of making it into the official unofficial history.

For years (perhaps even to this very day), executives at McDonald's would tell you with absolute certainly that the deluxe line failed not because it was based on over-hyped, under-impressive menu items but because the ads showed Ronald playing golf.

1 comment:

  1. Nobody markets marketing bullshit as a concept better than marketing types. And they write the press releases on their own press releases too.

    Personally I go and see every Pixar movie because they tell a good story.